A Farmer’s Guide to Growing Your Own Organic Garlic

Editor’s Note: If you planted garlic last year, hopefully your plants are doing well and have a good amount of top growth. Thanks to the generosity of CT NOFA and farm member Wayne M. Hansen of Wayne’s Organic  Garden, we are are able to share some of the best garlic planting, growing, cultivating and harvesting advice available for the organic backyard gardener in Connecticut.

Growing Garlic at Wayne’s Organic Garden

By Wayne M. Hansen

Organic garlic growing in my raised beds that was planted late November 2010. Clearly, it's time to get some mulch in there.

Garlic is a perennial but is grown as an annual.  It is not difficult to grow, but, as with almost everything, attention to detail gives best results.

Generally speaking, there are three easily distinguished types of garlic: softneck, hardneck or stiffneck, and elephant garlic.  Softneck garlic is the kind most commonly found in the supermarket; larger cloves surround smaller cloves in a bulb.  Hardneck garlic bulbs feature four to eight larger cloves around a central stem.  Elephant garlic, actually more closely related to leeks, has very large bulbs and the cloves are around a stem.  Being very much milder than true garlic, it is good when roasted or baked or even sliced raw in a salad.  Many varieties of softneck and hardneck garlic are out there, but there seems to be only one elephant garlic.  Try two or three varieties to see what you like and what works best for you.  I find the porcelain or continental varieties such as “German Extra-Hardy” are easy to grow and give good results.

Soil Preparation

Good garden soil with a pH near 7 (6.8-7.2) is best.  Bury any green manure crop a couple of weeks before planting.  I try to apply compost to the bed and linseed meal, greensand, and azomite in the row.

Come June, scapes will grow from the center of this hardneck garlic. They make delicious pesto, are wonderful in stir fries, and an even be grilled.

Seed Selection

As a rule, plant the largest cloves selected from the largest bulbs.  Save the smaller cloves for kitchen use, or plant for spring greens.  Bulbs two inches in diameter and larger seem to work best.  Remember that garlic acclimates.  Seed from a source local to you is often your best bet.  If you try seed from a distance, like the West Coast, replant it for a couple of years even if it doesn’t do well right away. Be aware that the devastating Bloat Nematode has been recently found in garlic in New York state. Be careful about the source of your seed garlic.  “Pop” the cloves from the bulb not more than a day or so before planting.

Planting

I try to plant in the last two weeks of October.  This allows some root growth and a minimum of top growth before the ground freezes.  Too much top growth can lead to winter kill when the really cold weather hits.

I plant cloves with the root end down, the base about three inches below the surface.  I space the cloves five inches apart in rows twelve inches apart.  I use a six-foot dibble board for even spacing and to save time in a large planting (I plant about 3,500 row feet).  Smaller plantings can be punched out with the handle of a hoe.  For elephant garlic, I place the cloves twelve inches apart in rows eighteen inches apart.

Make sure that the root end of the clove is down.  It will grow upside-down, but with the stem coming up in a “J” and the roots like an umbrella, and the energy required for that reduces the bulb size.  I cover the holes using a wheel hoe with a small cultivator shovel on each side of the row, pushing dirt up over the holes.  I mark varieties plainly on a stout stake and mulch right away with four to six inches of loose straw (more on elephant garlic).  Then, I leave it alone till spring.

Early Spring Care

Squirrels have dug holes in every raised bed that I did not have a wire cage on. The garlic has been protected with wire cages, but I had to remove them when the top growth hit the roof of the cage. I'm hoping the squirrels leave them alone.

After the harshest weather is over (late March?) check to see that all the bulbs are sending up leaves.  Some varieties will show before others.  If a lot are up but there are gaps in the spacing, check to see if the leaves have grown sideways under the mulch.  If so, just lift them up straight.

At three inches or so of top growth (early April?) I try to spray with Neptune’s Harvest fish hydrolyzate or fish with kelp.  Doing this every three weeks or so has worked well for me, but often I get in just one spraying.  Garlic likes plenty of nitrogen and blood meal is a good source of it, spread between the rows.  I’ve not done this since I stopped removing the straw mulch as  I used to.  David Stern of the Garlic Seed Foundation has recommended that I resume the blood meal, even atop the straw.  But, he says, the garlic does not benefit from nitrogen applied after early May.  I would say that the fish spraying could still be beneficial in late May if you have the time.

Late Spring Care

I irrigate if it is a dry spring. I use drip lines atop the straw.  Stop irrigating about mid-June.  Scapes, those flower buds that grow up out of the stems of the hardneck and the elephant garlic, should be snapped or cut off to get good bulb size.  These appear around the second week in June.  I begin to take them off as soon as they are a couple of inches above the top leaf.  I try to get them before the buds have swollen much.  Use or sell these.  Minced and stored in the refrigerator, they are a good addition to salads or dressings, and they make a dynamite pesto!  Add them to cooked dishes late in the cooking as their flavor goes quickly with heat.  They’re excellent raw in sour cream as a dip.  They will keep a few weeks or longer whole or minced in plastic in the refrigerator, and minced, will freeze for winter holiday dips.  Sheep and goats go wild for them, but it may affect milk flavor.  I don’t know.

Be sure to keep weeds out of the garlic plot. Like other alliums, garlic does not compete well with weeds.  The straw mulch will keep most of them down, but occasional hand work may be necessary.

Harvest and Storage

Garlic top growth ends about June 22 in the Northeast.  At that point, the energy goes to the bulb.  David Stern advises harvesting within thirty days after June 22.  He also says that most of us harvest too early, and that when garlic is at its harvest peak, the bulbs will show a tiny space between the stem and the clove.  You can only know this by cutting through a bulb.  I have always gone by the six green leaves rule.  When most or many of the plants have the sixth leaf from the top beginning to brown, it’s ready.  This has done well for me, but I’m also going to try David’s suggestion.  As head of the Garlic Seed Foundation, he is exposed to a lot more information than I am.

At any rate, I find that I harvest usually in the second and third weeks of July.  With garden cart at hand, I plunge a spading fork alongside the garlic row and pull back to loosen the plants.  I do this for a few feet, the pull up the bulbs by the stalks and brush away any clumps of heavy dirt.  The bulbs are stacked in the cart and moved to the storage shed and NEVER EVER left in strong sunshine where surely they will bake.

Using loops of twine, and usually with the help of two assistants, we gather six or eight plants into a bunch and secure it at one end of the loop, a second bunch at the other, then hang the two connected bunches over a nail on a joist in the barn.  They need a well-ventilated spot out of direct sunlight.

Another new (to me) suggestion from David Stern is to wash the bulbs under a spray like that from a hose nozzle.  Dunking in a bucket is likely to spread any disease present.  Spraying is done before hanging.  Stern says that this leaves the garlic whiter and saves cleaning.  I’ve not done this, but may give it a try.

After the garlic is hung, particularly in rainy and humid conditions, a fan helps to dry it.  In 2000, a cool, wet summer, friends of mine lost all their crop to rot from inadequate drying.  I use a twenty-inch window fan in each of the three bays of my carriage shed to keep the air moving.  If you do wash the bulbs, I think this would be especially important.

The bulbs are well enough cured for storage when the stem is dry when cut one half-inch above the clove tops.  I usually cut and store them in clean onion bags at 55 to 65 F in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.  You can also store them with the stem on, if you have room, or braid bunches.  I recommend braiding softnecks soon after harvest while the tops are still pliable.  Most varieties will store four to eight months or longer after curing, elephant garlic often longer.

For further study, get Growing Great Garlic by Ron. L. Engeland, available from Filaree Farm, 182 Conconully Highway, Okanogan, WA 98840.  Filaree has a great catalog of seed and information.

Join the Garlic Seen Foundation, c/o Rose Valley Farm, Rose, NY 14542-0419.  $15 for the first year, $20 for two-year renewals gets you the occasional newsletter, The Garlic Press, with festival listings, recipes, and garlic and medicinal information.

To contact me:  Wayne Hansen, Wayne’s Organic Garden, P.O. Box 154, Oneco, CT 06373, 860-564-7987; waynewog1co@sbcglobal.net

Related article: Living on the Earth: Harvesting Garlic, by Bill Duesing, Executive Director of CT NOFA and an organic farmer.

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